Cases of sexually transmitted diseases — especially in young people — continue to rise in the region, according to local health department and university statistics.
By the end of last month, Eau Claire County has had 135 reported cases of chlamydia and 53 reported cases of gonorrhea. And of those cases of chlamydia and gonorrhea, 79 and 13, respectively, occurred in people between the ages of 18 and 24.
“One in two sexually active young people will get an STD by age 25, and a lot of times when they have an STD they don’t know they have one because they don’t have symptoms,” Janel Hebert, a public health nurse with the Eau Claire City-County Health Department, said, referencing statistics from the American Sexual Health Association. “You see that in local data too.”
Those figures are the continuation of a general uptick in STDs in Eau Claire County. Last year, the number of reported cases of gonorrhea more than doubled in the county from 64 cases in 2017 to 169. Chlamydia reports in Eau Claire also rose from 504 cases in 2017 to 513 last year.
It’s hard to say whether the growth in cases is due to an increase in unsafe sex or more frequent STD testing, Hebert said. Still, Hebert said the health department continues to focus its efforts on increasing awareness of the importance of getting tested and using barrier contraceptives, like internal or external condoms which can prevent both pregnancy and STDs.
“I think it’s important to have conversations about it and have accessibility to condoms,” Hebert said. “Maybe people who aren’t using condoms think ‘well, it’s not going to happen to me’ ... The best thing to do is to go in and get tested.”
Laura Chellman, director of Student Health Service at UW-Eau Claire, said both testing and incidence rates of STDs have risen on campus in general.
While reports of gonorrhea stayed virtually level in the last few years, UW-Eau Claire Student Health Service records show reported cases of chlamydia grew from 37 in 2017 to 51 last year.
In the first four months of this year, records show 21 reports of chlamydia.
At UW-Stout, Student Health Services’ reported cases of gonorrhea increased from 2 cases in 2017 to 10 cases last year. Meanwhile, cases of chlamydia actually decreased last year with 46 reported cases in comparison to 62 in 2017. But in the first four months of this year, Student Health Service records already show 23 confirmed cases of chlamydia.
And according to the 2018 National College Health Assessment — which is administered every three years via survey — 2.6% of UW-Eau Claire and UW-Stout students reported being diagnosed or treated by a professional for chlamydia in the last 12 months.
That’s slightly higher than the average across all UW System schools with 1.9% of the 5,809 responding students reporting being treated for chlamydia.
Chellman noted not all students utilize the on-campus clinic, and National College Health Assessment statistics only represent about 25% of UW-Eau Claire’s student population.
“We have a snapshot,” Chellman said. “I would say (our data) mirrors the county, probably the state and nation as well.”
In UW-Stout’s case, the assessment represents about 15% of the student population. In addition, incidence rates only reflect the students who take the time and have the money to get tested on campus, said Janice Lawrence-Ramaeker, director of student health at UW-Stout.
County and university health officials aren’t the only ones concerned about rising STD rates.
When Paige Sprink, a junior at UW-Eau Claire, heard recent national and local STD statistics during a Student Senate meeting — particularly the National College Health Assessment statistic that just 50.4% of UW-Eau Claire students reported using a condom or other protective barrier “mostly” or “always” when having vaginal intercourse in the last 30 days — she knew she wanted to do something about it.
So she began brainstorming with fellow student and member of the Student Senate Hannah Jacobson, and they formulated a plan to use their service learning projects to work to advocate for increased access to barrier contraceptive methods on campus.
Though condoms are available in residence halls and a couple of other locations on campus, Sprink said she believes the university can do better.
Last month, Sprink and Jacobson passed a resolution in the Student Senate in support of increasing accessibility to safe sex devices.
“This is a statement to provide to the university to say we’re concerned about rising STD rates and that making these devices more accessible is the way we want to be moving as a student body,” Sprink said. “We’re not trying to shove (safe sex supplies) down people’s throats, but students who do want them and need them should have access. ... It’s about keeping the whole campus safe and healthy.”
Though the resolution doesn’t allocate more money to providing safe sex devices — currently, Student Senate allocates about $2,500 of its budget for free safe sex supplies — it’s Sprink’s hope that it will start a conversation in the future.
Katie Wilson, a health educator with UW-Eau Claire’s Student Health Service who has been working with Sprink and Jacobson on the project, said in the fall they will begin researching dispensers that could hold safe sex supplies, how they’d be paid for and where they’d be located.
While installing dispensers would have an up-front cost, Wilson said in the long run they wouldn’t cost Student Senate more because they’re already purchasing safe sex supplies.
“(The resolution) is important because it tells the university administration that this is something the students want,” Wilson said. “It is controversial — condoms and contraceptives are controversial. There are some people who think that people at this age shouldn’t be having sex, so they say we should normalize it or let’s not provide the tools to stay safer while they’re doing it.”
But, Wilson said climbing STD rates is a public health issue.
“In some way, shape or form this benefits everyone, even if you’re not using them yourself,” Wilson said. “Someday, you’ll probably be sexually active, so fewer sexually transmitted infections in the community is a good thing.”